By Kirthi Jayakumar
Challenges to public health – be it in the form of epidemics and pandemics or structural violence in health infrastructure – have a gendered impact. As Helen Lewis wrotein light of COVID-19, “across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic.” The immediate and obvious manifestation of a pandemic are in the form of challenges to health and the healthcare infrastructure. However, the impacts of pandemics also extend beyond that: to economic challenges, access to public space, and means of livelihood. In addition, these impacts are complicated by gender and sexuality, and most often, these narratives are not reported.
COVID-19 and Women
So far, what we do understand of the pandemic is that the virus appears to impact women less severely, but this information must be understood with the understanding that the data collected is not necessarily adequate and representative at this point when research is still underway. Regardless, the outbreak has affected women adversely in many respects. With both lockdowns and social distancing, the burden of care and “keeping house” have fallen on the shoulders of women. This is not to mean that these burdens weren’t already being borne largely by women – but rather that the work-from-home arrangements fastens these burdens more surely on women. The limited amount of care work that operated in the paid economy (schools, nurseries, creches, after-school care centers, babysitters, nannies, and the like), have shifted right into the unpaid economy.
In dual-income households where reliance on caregiving support enabled both partners to work, the pandemic created a massive disruption. In most households, women wind up being the ones to bear the burden of care work while also juggling their career obligations. This is mostly because of a combination of several structural factors: existing gender roles that place care work within the domain of women, unequal pay structures that force economically practical decisions to give up / focus less on the lesser paying job (which women hold) in favour of the higher paying one (which men hold).
Pregnant mothers, post-pregnant mothers, and menstruating women are vulnerable to adverse health consequences of the pandemic. This is complicated further where maternal healthcare resources are either frugal at best or lacking altogether.
COVID-19 and LGBTQIA++ persons
The impact of the pandemic on LGBTQIA++ persons need to be addressed in public health and disaster response strategies, as well. In an open letter to the media and health officials on COVID-19, over a hundred organizations working on LGBTQIA++ issues have raised three factors as the basis / cause for increased vulnerability of the community, namely the higher rates of tobacco consumption, the higher rates of HIV and cancer, and the systemic discrimination against the community. That LGBTQIA++ persons have higher rates of HIV and cancer, they are more likely to be immunocompromised than cis het persons.
Furthermore, pre-existing health conditions of a chronic nature – especially because of no access to healthcare systems owing to systemic discrimination on the ground of gender – can make them doubly vulnerable to the disease. Even as the emphasis is on getting tested, it must be borne in mind that the overburdened medical and public health system already has a gender-bias that has been weaponized against LGBTQIA++ persons, whose access to healthcare has been limited or prevented entirely on account of their gender and/or sexual orientation. The economic burden on LGBTQIA++ persons is also a major factor to take into consideration, especially given that many of them have limited access to savings, regular income, and resources of their own to fall back on. Coupled with healthcare and insurance systems that are not entirely and always gender inclusive, the community’s vulnerability is significantly higher.
COVID-19 and violence in the home
Another major impact that needs to both be acknowledged and addressed in disaster management and response strategies is the vulnerability to violence among non-cis-het male communities. With quarantines and social distancing in place, more and more non-cis-het individuals are forced to stay in spaces, among and with family members who maybe physically, psychologically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. Seeking help against domestic violence is inherently complicated – and doubly so in situations of this sort. Individuals who have not come out to their families may have to bear the brunt of adverse impacts of having to conform to difficult cultural and social norms, and even handle dysphoria without the support they need to do so.
Acknowledging the gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic can help make the case for public health policies to employ a gender and queer lens in order to be inclusive and impactful in ways that are meaningful.
The way forward
UN Women Deputy Executive Director Åsa Regnér drew up a checklist of ten questions to inform approaches to addressing COVID-19 on ground across the world. Adding to and enhancing the checklist to include a gender inclusive and sensitive lens, we encourage asking governments the following:
What are you doing to ensure that women and sexual and gender minorities have access to resources, hotlines and shelters?
How are you targeting your economic response and whose interests are these responses serving? Have you considered how women’s and sexual and gender minorities’ voices and interests are reflected in the decision-making processes and outcomes you are leading? Are you guided by women, sexual and gender minority politicians, leaders, and decision-makers in arriving at your policies? Have employers and trade unions representing labour of all gender identities across various market sectors had a say? Were women’s and sexual and gender minorities’ organizations, shelters, NGOs, helplines, and collectives consulted? What about women and sexual and gender minorities who work in the informal sector?
Women and sexual and gender minorities are poorer than men and have less economic power. If cash transfers are part of the policy, will they target individuals rather than households in order to mitigate women’s and sexual and gender minorities’ economic dependence / challenges?
Are you preparing targeted interventions for single mothers, and sexual and gender minorities when economies slow down or even come to a halt?
Are there planned interventions to address the needs of those undergoing transitioning procedures?
Does your administration know the situation of the elderly women and sexual and gender minorities?
When elderly-care exists, it is often women who provide it through paid or unpaid work. What are you doing to ensure that they have protection against transmission?
In many countries, fewer women and sexual and gender minorities have health care insurance. What are you doing to ensure that their rights to testing and health care are protected?
During a crisis, people need reliable access to food. Women are majorly engaged in low-paid food production work, including in agriculture and grocery stores. How are you protecting their situation, including their working conditions, salaries and access to land?
What have you done to ensure that girls and sexual and gender minorities are not deprived of their right to education during the crisis, especially given that several schools are closing down and shifting to online / ICT based education?
What are you doing to ensure that maternal-care continues under safe circumstances for staff and mothers?